TRAVELING WITH BATTERIES
For the most part, this is a discussion on Lithium Ion (Li-ion) batteries as they are now the most common “portable power devices” used in laptops, cameras, smart phones as well as the power packs for our portable strobe heads.
As of late, there has been a crackdown on transporting batteries when traveling domestic or international using carry-on or checked baggage, as well as shipping packages using FedEx, UPS, or your favorite carrier. Please keep in mind that the DOT, TSA, Homeland Security, as well as international organizations govern all methods of the transport of any battery. In addition to these domestic and international laws, many companies take the aforementioned restrictions and in-turn; raise them to an even higher level. If not properly protected or stored, batteries have the potential to generate a tremendous amount of heat and can potentially catch fire.
So why do the rules differ for carry-on vs. checked bags when you are on a flight? How many different batteries (including lithium) are there? How do I know which batteries I have and will I have problems transporting them? Hopefully your questions will be answered in this article and you will not have any problems shipping or flying with (checking or carry-on) your batteries.
Believe it or not, the rules of transporting batteries are fairly lenient if you understand why such rules are implemented. It’s all about the type, size, content and capacity that determine how many and where you can store your batteries for travel or transport (how to calculate such factors will be discussed further down).
KNOW YOUR BATTERIES
Manufacturers of camera equipment go through painstaking research and testing to make sure their products work optimally within their family. When purchasing batteries to use in your equipment, my advice is not to skimp on third party knock-offs just to save a couple of dollars. Be cautious of third party batteries, as potential damage may come to your equipment and should something go wrong, there goes your warranty.
To start, there are four basic categories of battery:
- Dry cell alkaline batteries: typical AA, AAA, C, D, 9-volt, button-sized cells, etc.
- Dry cell rechargeable batteries: Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) and Nickel Cadmium (NiCad) also in various sizes.
- Lithium METAL batteries: Non-rechargeable lithium, also known as primary lithium.
- Lithium ION batteries: Rechargeable lithium, lithium polymer, LIPO, also known as secondary lithium.
Please note the distinction between Lithium-Metal and Lithium-Ion as these are entirely two different types of batteries and calculating their size and content may mean the difference of taking or leaving your batteries behind during travel.
LITHIUM METAL vs. LITHIUM ION
The Lithium Metal are those that are non-rechargeable and come in various sizes which, include AA, AAA, 123, CR123A, CR1, CR2, CRV3, CR22, 2CR5, etc., as well as the flat, round, lithium button batteries. Note that these can also be referred to as “primary lithium batteries” and while powerful and longer lasting compared to its dry celled brothers, these tend to be more expensive as they are non-rechargeable and must be disposed of properly.
The Lithium-Ion (Li-ion) are rechargeable and sizes range from AA, AAA, cell phone, PDA, still camera or video camera, tablet, standard laptop computer, and power tool batteries. Also known as “secondary lithium batteries” this includes a category of lithium polymer (Li-Po) batteries as well. In addition, at the end-of-life of these batteries they must also be disposed of properly.
WHAT “SIZE” IS MY BATTERY?
Contrary to popular belief, the Physical Size does not determine the Categorical Size of the battery. Both lithium metal and lithium ion batteries fall into small, medium and large “sizes” and all are determined by their content. The airlines and shipping companies are mainly concerned with the categorical size (content) and not necessarily the physical size of the batteries they are transporting. As such, it’s possible that your camcorder battery is considered to be a medium sized battery despite the small physical size.
Lithium Metal batteries are measured by the amount of lithium alloy, or metal content (how many grams of Li exist within) and Lithium Ion batteries are measured by the Equivalent Lithium Content (ELC). In order to determine a categorical size, one needs specific information that should be printed, affixed, or associated with the battery in question. If there is no information given (as mandated by law) relative to the battery, caveat emptor and stay away. Somewhere on your battery there should be printed information with regards to its specs, normally given in volts (V), watt-hours (Wh), amp-hours (Ah) or milliamp-hours (mAh).
Table 1 below shows the specifications associated with the categorical sizes of batteries.
CALCULATE THE CATEGORICAL SIZE OF YOUR BATTERY
More often than not, regulations are based on the watt-hour (Wh) of the battery and when calculated, the battery can then be categorized. To determine the categorical size of your battery in Li Content, ELC or the Watt-hour of the battery, simply plug in the manufacturers numbers using one of the three following equations.
Equation #1 To find watt-hour (Wh) from amp hour (Ah)
Wh = Ah x Volts
Equation #2 To find watt-hour (Wh) from milliamp hour (mAh)
Wh = (mAh / 1,000) x Volts.
Equation #3 To find ELC (equivalent lithium content)
ELC (g) = rated capacity (Ah) x 0.3
It is easier to categorize the size of your battery in watt-hour so use the first two equations. Rarely will you need to calculate the ELC as provided in Equation 3 but none the less you have the means to calculate.
Referring to Image 1 below, let’s determine the categorical size of the battery.
The battery has 12.8 volts and a capacity of 12 Ah. In this instance there is a need to convert amp-hours to watt-hours. Using Equation #1 (Wh = Ah x volts) one can enter the manufacturers numbers in that Wh = 12Ah x 12.8v (12 x 12.8) = 153.6
The resulting equation is 153.6Wh and according to Table 2 below, outlined in red, a battery that is between 100 – 300 Wh is a “Medium” battery.
Referring to Image 2, if the manufacturer has supplied the mAh and V, use Equation #2 (Wh = (mAh / 1,000) x Volts) to determine the equivalent watt-hour. In this case,
Wh = (3400 / 1,000) x 7.2 and based on the equation the Wh = 24.48. Again referring to Table 2 above, anything up to 100 Wh is considered a “Small” sized battery.
Please note in Table 1 and Table 2 there are categories for Cells and Batteries and by definition:
- A CELL is a single encased electrochemical unit. It has one positive and one negative electrode that exhibit a voltage differential across its two terminals.
Note: Many cells can be termed “battery” or “single-cell battery” in common conversation, but under this regulation a single cell must use the requirements relatedto “cells” only. Examples of a “cell” would be a CR123 primary lithium cell used for cameras, meters and flashlights.1
- A BATTERY is two or more cells electrically connected together by permanent means, including case, terminals and markings.
TSA and AIRLINE REQUIREMENTS
Airlines within the US allow passengers to carry-on and check batteries with exceptions and these exceptions are within reason.
Quoting directly from the FAA, as of January, 2017, batteries that CAN accompany you in flight:
Lithium ion batteries (a.k.a.: rechargeable lithium, lithium polymer, LIPO, secondary lithium). Passengers may carry all consumer-sized lithium ion batteries (up to 100 watt hours per battery). This size covers AA, AAA, cell phone, PDA, camera, camcorder, handheld game, tablet, portable drill, and standard laptop computer batteries. External chargers are also considered to be a battery. Passengers can also bring two (2) larger lithium ion batteries (100-160 watt hours per battery) in their carry-on.
Lithium metal batteries (a.k.a.: non-rechargeable lithium, primary lithium). These batteries are often used with cameras and other small personal electronics. Consumer-sized batteries (up to 2 grams of lithium per battery) may be carried. This includes all the typical non-rechargeable lithium batteries used in cameras (AA, AAA, 123, CR123A, CR1, CR2, CRV3, CR22, 2CR5, etc.) as well as the flat round lithium button cells.
Except for spare (uninstalled) lithium metal and lithium-ion batteries, all the batteries allowed in carry-on baggage are also allowed in checked baggage. The batteries must be protected from damage and short circuit or installed in a device. Battery-powered devices—particularly those with moving parts or those that could heat up—must be protected from accidental activation. Spare lithium metal and lithium ion/polymer batteries are prohibited in checked baggage—this includes external chargers.
This means that as long as the battery is physically seated in the device, there should be no problems transporting batteries. The whole reason (and the aforementioned exception) is the majority of persons traveling do not properly protect the battery from having a short circuit.
When metal objects such as keys, coins, tools or other batteries come in contact with both terminals of a battery it can create a “circuit” or path for electricity to flow through. Electrical current flowing through this unprotected short circuit can cause extreme heat and sparks and even start a fire. To prevent short circuits, keep spare batteries in their original packaging, a battery case, or a separate pouch or pocket. Make sure loose batteries can’t move around. Placing tape over the terminals of unpackaged batteries also helps to insulate them from short circuit.
There is no limit on the number of most consumer-size batteries or battery-powered devices that a passenger can carry for personal use, yet the larger lithium ion batteries are limited to two (2) batteries per passenger.
Whether traveling with or shipping your batteries, photo equipment or whatever, carriers are governed by the rules set by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which is in turn based on the rules set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The ICAO is the United Nations body that has jurisdiction over international aviation rules.
Within the United States and its territories, in accordance with the previous organizations, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation (PHMSA), develops regulations for transport of dangerous goods by all modes within the U.S.
Two of the more frequently used carriers in the U.S. are Federal Express (FedEx) and United Parcel Service (UPS). Both carriers have links on their web sites to information for regulations and instructions regarding transporting Lithium Metal and Lithium Ion batteries. They are virtually identical in their rules / regulations but their explanations of their rules are presented in two entirely different manners.
FedEx link: http://www.fedex.com/us/service-guide/our-services/hazardous-materials/#tab1
UPS link: https://www.ups.com/us/en/help-center/packaging-and-supplies/special-care-shipments/batteries.page
The carriers are very specific with regards to the categorical size and lithium content of the batteries, which in turn will determine if the batteries will be shipped via ground, air, or by special cargo conforming to the U.S. DOT Hazardous Materials Regulations.
The Hazardous Materials Information Center can be reached at 1-800-467-4922.
In general, use common sense when packing for travel. Be aware that lithium batteries can pack a tremendous amount of power and can short-out if not properly stored or packaged. Know the capacity and specifications of your battery and which rules govern its transport. Some manufacturers of batteries provide documentation that can be printed or saved. I have been asked be some customers to provide printed documentation to accompany the battery as a “just in case” scenario. In my business, photographers often travel with batteries for their high-powered flash systems. Profoto has published their specs and travel conformity, which can be easily downloaded by visiting our Equipment Manuals page. Print out these travel certificates and put them in with the flash units. Lastly, it may be a good idea to keep an electronic copy of the rules and regulations as mandated by law, so if there are any questions at the airport you’ll have some back-up as to allow you to carry-on or check.
1Source: “IATA Lithium Battery Guidance Document: Transport of Lithium Metal and Lithium Ion Batteries.” IATA. 2017. Web. http://www.iata.org/lithiumbatteries
2Source: “IATA Lithium Battery Guidance Document: Transport of Lithium Metal and Lithium Ion Batteries.” IATA. 2017. Web. http://www.iata.org/whatwedo/cargo/dgr/Pages/dgr-guidance.aspx
3Source: Batteries Carried by Airline Passengers, FAQ’s”. FAA, Office of Hazardous Materials Safety, 2017, Web: http://www.faa.gov/Go/PackSafe